Myths Drive Human Society

By Dale Olen

In the historical novel, The Source, James Michener weaves the 100,000-year story of the family of Ur and the beginning of human belief in gods.  Ur’s wife, Timna and son decided to move out of the community underground cave, so they built a little shed above ground where they could better watch and control the planting and growing of wheat (The very beginning of agriculture).  They began to realize how dependent they were on the sun, the rain, and storms to produce the fullest yield possible.  They began to believe there was some agency behind the sun, rain, and storms.  Just as they had taken charge of some parts of growing wheat, they wondered whether there was another willful form behind the elements of Earth. 

As they were predators to the creatures of their time, they began fearing there might be a higher predator that could whimsically turn against them.  So, to grow wheat, Tamna and her son had to work with the earth and its forces.  If the rains did not come, then they begged the earth gods for mercy.  When the rains came, they offered to the gods a show of gratitude.  Eventually, the three smaller gods were seen in relation to a larger, more powerful god—El.  Him you could talk to.  And refer to him as a “he.”  Now, they personalized and masculinized their force of nature.

From there, people organized a religion with priests and temples, altars and sacrifice.  First, plants were offered for thanksgiving and appeasement to the strong, often punishing god.  Then they upped the offerings to include blood animals, and finally they sacrificed their own first-born sons to make El happy.

Beliefs in a spiritual world and gods developed, and along with it, religions.  All from their need to fill the empty space of “not knowing,” and to calm their fear of not being in control.

I read part of this story to a group of life-long learners at an Earth Wisdom Discussion Group recently and asked them what other kinds of myths, stories, beliefs, and viewpoints cultures have developed to help us figure out how to relate to the forces of nature, including other humans as part of nature.

Well, we came up with an interesting set of stories that have shaped our behavior and our psychological make-up.

One of the first myths of the immigrants arriving in America was that this was the land of plenty.  There was always another horizon to explore.  Explorers could discover more food, more land, more wealth, more gold.  The corollary to that story was if you worked hard you could make it to the top in wealth and power.  You could always find new land, stake a claim and become a private owner. And what you owned, you could control. 

This fairytale led beyond land to human beings as well.  Once you owned land, you could decide who stayed on that land and who didn’t.  So, the Indians (misnamed by Columbus who thought he had reached India) got corralled and shoved off the land to postage-stamp reservations. 

Landowners, then, expanded their property myth, including African slaves for purchase and forced labor for twenty hours a day.  These stories drove early American behavior.

These myths aided certain people to profit greatly off the sweat and labor of the slaves.  But they covered that painful fact by making up a new myth.  “We got rich” they said, “because of our own ingenuity and perseverance.”

Many cultural, deep-seated myths we accept and live by are false.  I am pretty convinced that a story is untrue if some people take from the earth and its inhabitants something of value and make themselves richer and the world poorer.

Always a current example in the U.S.:  Guns and military will keep us safe and free.  That myth carries the only justification to having a military budget that is higher than our education, medical, and science budgets combined.  In fact, wars and weapons have always been used by one people to gain access to the natural resources of another people.  We were not protecting U.S. citizen’s right to free speech by invading Iraq and eliminating Saddam Hussein.  Bush wanted to gain some access to Iraq’s oil fields, their wonderful natural resource of fossil fuels.

Today, we are so much more able to take facts and data into those unknown black holes out there and fill in the empty spaces with truth rather than fiction.  While that might not always be comfortable for us, it will truly set us free, set the world free from the greed and violence that now still propagate the myths.










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